When I found this postcard depicting Yale’s Alumni Hall, I was intrigued by its odd inscription, “The House of Terror”. This vivid comment makes us wonder just what was so horrific about this building.
|The mystery postcard|
We conjure up mental images of recalcitrant alumni being forced to finally make that donation, through means too awful to name aloud. Supporting this, we can see a couple of what look like Durfee residents lurking behind an elm tree in obvious fear of the building, terrified that the dreaded Alumni will get them.
|Better make a run for it.|
Although Alumni Hall is long gone, Yale must still employ some of the same techniques; its fund-raising efforts seem more successful than generosity alone could account for. Consider that its recent fund drive, ending just last June, raised nearly four billion dollars.
|What's left of Alumni Hall|
Here is more evidence of the nefarious nature of Alumni Hall’s activities: after its demolition, the towers were saved and re-erected by Yale’s notorious Skull and Bones Society. Hidden in the rear courtyard of the Skull and Bones Tomb, who knows what dark rituals are yet performed there.
|The Towers today, with their simplified battlements.|
|Aerial view today, showing the twin octagonal towers.|
Alumni Hall was built in 1853, designed by one of the great architects of the day, Alexander Jackson Davis. Two of his iconic buildings are the New York Customs House, the emblem of Wall Street, and the Gothic Revival masterpiece Lyndhurst in Tarrytown. The present photo was copyright 1901, and the building was razed in 1911 to build the still-standing Wright Hall.
|The Wadsworth Atheneum|
Although its symmetry makes it less romantic than some Gothic Revival structures, we can see Alumni Hall’s relation to other Davis buildings. The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford has a similar entry pavilion flanked by towers, and Alumni Hall’s octagonal crenellated towers themselves are echoed in Davis’ design for Tudor Villa in New Rochelle, New York.
|Tudor Villa, another Davis building|
With all this in mind, I set out to unravel the mystery. I thought perhaps the caption was once a catch-phrase, and tried to look it up, but unfortunately “House of Terror” now has a much darker and more literal meaning than it ever could have then. The kind of terrorism which today has become prevalent underscores the innocence of that day over one hundred years ago.
Some further digging reveals the probable source of the writer’s trepidation. It turns out that Alumni Hall was basically one large room. Written examinations were an innovation in the 1850’s, and term exams were held in Alumni Hall. In fact, some of the original exam tables are still to be seen in the Yale Art Gallery.
Even in the early twentieth century, the typical student at Yale was not the brilliant scholar type, and we can finally see this photo of Alumni Hall through the anonymous writer’s eyes.
So it seems that alumni actually had little to do with Alumni Hall, other than possibly paying for it. Still, today’s reluctant donors, recalling those extant tables and towers, might want to reconsider their position and pony up: “Well, Mr. Bush, are you going to endow that library, or do you want to re-take that Philosophy exam?”